One Step at a Time

Evolution is a process that proceeds incrementally, one step at a time. One thing leads to another. This is true for all kinds of evolution. Living things evolve through natural selection, with small changes between generations leading to larger changes through many generations. Cultural artifacts, such as automobiles and telephones, evolve through many small, intentional changes based on experience, and spread through imitation. Societies evolve as the people who manage them adjust them to better serve their purposes and adapt to their environments.

Although all evolutionary change is ultimately composed of very small steps, this is not the way it appears to us. Subjectively, we see categories of changes, from the trivial to the critical, and from the very gradual to the abrupt. It’s like a very long flight of stairs where some steps are higher or steeper than others. We see developments like the evolution of the human eye, or the introduction of agriculture, as qualitatively different from relatively minor breakthroughs like, say, the introduction of bifocals, or the latest innovation in farm pesticides. But when you look more closely at such critically important leaps forward, you see that the all of them, the big and the trivial alike, are composed of a number of smaller, individual events.

Put the whole world on one map, and a map of a village next to it. When you look at the global map, you don’t see the detail you can find when you turn to the village level, but in the real world, that detail is there on the big map too, you just cannot see it. Likewise, with evolution, there are no big breakthroughs, just some events where enough little increments crowd together to give the appearance of a big step forward.

If scale is one of the ways that affect how we see evolutionary change, another is time, which governs the speed of change. It’s like getting your shutter speed right when you take a picture. When you examine, for example, the introduction of agriculture, it is important to slow down, abandoning the tempos surrounding us in contemporary life, and look at change in terms of centuries if not millennia. It’s even more important to slow down when examining remote events in biological evolution.

If every change of an evolutionary nature can be broken down into smaller units, where does it all end up? Is the notion that some changes are more important than others, and have more lasting consequences, just a figment of human imagination? Perhaps, but if so, it is a very important figment. We need to be able to distinguish between change that is less important and that which is more so, if we are to understand evolution at all.

So what do we mean by important change? If we use our analogy of a flight of stairs, an important change is one that gets us a step or two higher. If we extend the analogy to an entire building, a critically important change is one that gets us up to a higher floor, with its own architecture and environmental restraints on further evolution. Very roughly, in biology this second category of change could correspond to evolution of one species to a different one. In cultural evolution, a useful way of defining this kind of change could be tied to the principles governing the maximum size for cooperating societies. When villages stopped competing with each other by coalescing into kingdoms, that was certainly an important change because it opened up new possibilities and directions for the whole evolutionary process.

With a big change like that, you get to the next floor and it’s a new scene; new rules, or algorithms if you will, determine what happens. You grope around for a few generations, sorting out the furniture and getting used to the new environment, and after a while you begin to bump against new limits, and a few of you begin to wonder whether there isn’t still another floor above. Then someone discovers a place where there is a step up, and someone else discovers a step beyond that, and so it goes.

How do you distinguish between the really big changes between floors, and the merely important ones, steps up? It’s a bit like pornography, hard to define but you know it when you see it. It’s what I refer to in my “Short History of Evolution” as levels which have ceilings. Evolution writ broad can be seen as a very long saga in which life evolves, bumps up against a ceiling, breaks through it, and evolves further, until it hits another ceiling, and so it has been from the remotest past to the unforeseeable future.

Humanity has met a lot of bumps in its evolution since the Neolithic and has proved singularly ingenious in solving most of them. We’ve harnessed enormous new sources of energy, and solved the food problem so successfully that global population has exploded into the billions. Our command over information—access, storage, and retrieval—has similarly exploded, and unlike population, there’s no end in sight. But despite all that, we have not gotten past much of the baggage that evolved shortly after we broke through that last ceiling ten thousand years ago. We still are comfortable only in groups small enough so we know each other, though we have ingeniously combined clusters of such cells to form a vast human coral reef which functions well enough at the national level but has yet to find firm footing on the planetary side. We’ve come a long way, but a look at the world around us, and the simmering discontent of people almost everywhere, suggests we still have a way to go…another ceiling?

It seems that one of the more annoying features of the whole evolutionary process, at least from our point of view, is that many of the workarounds and other changes we have used to help us adjust to one floor prove irrelevant or downright dysfunctional when we crack through the ceiling and confront a new set of conditions. This follows what seems to be a basic principle of evolution: when you (or any evolving entity) gets to the top of a flight of stairs, you discover that your troubles are just beginning.

Let’s look more closely at that period beginning about ten thousand years ago when our ancestors crashed through the ceiling that largely limited group cooperation to the village level. When multiple villages began to coalesce into mini-kingdoms, new problems emerged, and a lot of the old furniture had to be discarded or replaced. You can get an idea of the confusion from the Old Testament. The newly minted larger groups were a scrappy lot, on the whole, constantly finding reasons to fight each other. Constant conflict was costly in the short run but over longer time frames it did replace a lot of the debris with new furniture that helped hold the supertribes together and help them develop. War, supported by religion, became a major enabler for what we describe as civilization. We’re still on that same floor but well-advanced in rearranging the furniture and getting ready for the next breakthrough.

By now, war has become dysfunctional because we are too good at it, and religion is being pushed into a lesser role by science. Yet their more primitive forms still remain as bothersome holdovers seriously impeding the further evolution of our species. (I describe all this in more detail in the concluding portions of my “Short History”.)

Can this approach help us better understand what is going on around us today? I believe so, if we begin with the idea with which we started this essay. One step at a time. Yes, we need a global sheriff, some duly constituted global authority able and authorized to step in and keep the peace when some neighborhoods get so unruly that they threaten to get completely out of hand. But no, we are not going to achieve this in my lifetime, or yours. As a former diplomat, I can see a myriad of small measures that need to be put in place before we can seriously contemplate the creation of an effective global peace force. As for climate change, our recent election shows how far we are even from agreeing on the concept, let alone on effective coordination of efforts on the global level.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to work as hard as we can at getting those intermediate measures in place, establishing the preconditions that must be in place before the next big push to get us to the top of the stairs we confront in the here and now. When we look closely at these intermediate measures, as we normally do, the obstacles are formidable. It can get pretty discouraging unless we step back and see them for what they are, not goals in themselves, but parts of a vast process that can only lead up, in the long run.

What is “up” in this context? Like everything else in the future, we’ll know it when we see it, and not before. But is getting there worth the effort, considering we don’t know what “there” consists of? Well, as I said in my “Short History,” when we look ahead, we may wonder if it’s worth the effort, but when we look back, we’ll know.

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